USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Through two weeks, it was more of the same. The Rebels opened the 2013 season with two familiar losses, one by 28 points to Minnesota, the second by 45 points to Arizona. Whether those losses motivated UNLV to greater heights is unclear; the Rebels have lost by similar margins in the past and failed to rebound, with history as our guide. But something clicked: UNLV won five of its next six, the first three by double digits, and on Nov. 21 clinched the program's first postseason berth since 2000.
The postseason streak almost ended at one. In April, the NCAA handed the Rebels a postseason ban due to low Academic Progress Report scores, making UNLV the first of two Football Bowl Subdivision teams – Idaho the other – to feel the wrath of diminishing academic results. But on April 26, the NCAA overturned the decision on appeal, which is huge.
The postseason wasn't just a long time coming for UNLV, a bastion of ineptitude for a decade running, but an achievement the program hoped would echo into the future – becoming the first of many in a steady Mountain West Conference.
But even after winning the appeal, the Rebels must address academics, getting that house in order so as to avoid a ban in 2015. As if Bobby Hauck's job wasn't tough enough.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
UNLV has entered the fall with expectations in the past only to fall flat, often stumbling out of the gate before coasting to another 10-loss season. Hauck has only more shot to get this program moving forward. Is this the year UNLV turns the corner?
In a nutshell: Credit UNLV for sticking with Hauck despite three seasons' worth of evidence to the contrary. His tenure began terribly: UNLV suffered double-digit losses in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and entered last fall with national expectations leaning in the same direction. That the Rebels feasted on inferior competition for much of the regular season wasn't ignored; UNLV did beat Central Michigan, a nice win, but lost by a combined 28 points to a pair of MWC bowl teams. Then came the finale, when the Rebels topped San Diego State with room to spare. That sent a message: UNLV wasn't just going to the postseason but deserving of the postseason. It was a banner season.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Mountain West
High point: Ending the regular season with a 45-19 win against San Diego State.
Low point: The two ugly losses to open the year and a narrow home loss to Utah State on Nov. 9.
Tidbit: UNLV went 13 years between postseason berths, the longest streak among last season's bowl teams. Next was Tulane, which went 11 years, followed by Washington State at 10 years and North Texas at nine years. Among programs that joined the FBS prior to 2012 – all those newcomers in the Sun Belt and Conference USA – the longest current streaks without a bowl berth belong to Eastern Michigan (24 years) and New Mexico State (54 years).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Las Vegas 51s alumni
1. Tony Gwynn
2. Roberto Alomar
3. Nomar Garciaparra
4. Matt Kemp
5. Benito Santiago
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The Rebels will have an easier time replacing a standout starting quarterback – more on that below – than supplanting Tim Cornett's production in the backfield, even if Hauck and the staff have bodies at their disposal. It's a little less crowded than it was, at least: Adonis Smith, a former Northwestern transfer, opted to leave the program after the NCAA handed down its bowl ban. With Smith gone – and he had a nice spring game – the Rebels' backfield will begin with senior Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (418 yards), last year's backup, but include plenty of room for sophomore Keith Whitely, redshirt freshman Henri Jussila and converted safety David Greene, a late addition to the mix. It'll take a team effort to match Cornett's impact.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
The receiver corps is headlined by a star: Devante Davis (87 receptions for 1,290 yards and 14 touchdowns) might be the best receiver in college football living under the national radar. He's been productive since stepping into the lineup as a sophomore, giving UNLV a major boost out wide, and stands to serve as the new quarterback's security blanket from the start. In addition to Davis – a simple, easy pick for all-league honors – UNLV has senior Marcus Sullivan (45 for 505), a terrific running mate when healthy, and junior Anthony Williams (21 for 188), who should produce more given the attention defensive backs pay in Davis' general attention. Depth isn't great, no, but any group headlined by Davis is going to be solid. All Davis needs to do is avoid the sort of lulls that popped up during an otherwise sterling junior campaign.
Quibble with the quarterback competition and the running back conundrum, but the Rebels' line is sturdy. It's terrific at one spot: Brett Boyko is all-conference lock as a senior, as he was in 2013, and the perfect blind-side protector for the new starter under center. In total, UNLV's line brings the sort of experience potential bowl teams crave: Boyko's back at left tackle, Cameron Jefferson at left guard, Robert Waterman at center, Ron Scoggins at right guard and Andrew Oberg at right tackle – the first three seniors, the latter pair juniors. It's mostly sophomores in reserve, but junior Nick Gstrein can flex into both guard spots.
Defense: The Rebels' defense is in a state of transition. On one hand, you have a secondary loaded with experienced contributors, largely due to a rash of injuries suffered a year ago – as always, that's the silver lining in a year of struggles. On the other hand, the front seven has been decimated by graduation and attrition, leaving a troubling scenario in play: UNLV's strong secondary is negated by a front group that can't get to the quarterback or stop the run with any reliability. That's something that should worry Hauck and the staff.
But the pass defense was solid last fall even with the injuries and an uneven performance up front. You have to ask: Couldn't this secondary be better in 2014 even as the Rebels retool along the line and on the second level? That's a possibility, particularly with ball-hawking – but not pass-intercepting – cornerbacks Tajh Hasson (44 tackles) and Kenneth Penny on the edges and Peni Vea (88 tackles) and Mike Horsey back at safety. Better yet, UNLV will have a healthy Sidney Hodge at cornerback, a healthy Kenny Keys at safety and a well-regarded recruit in Dominique Fenstermacher, who should see the field as a rookie. If teamed with a solid pass rush, this secondary is as reliable as any you'll see among the Group of Six conferences.
Things get dicey closer to the line of scrimmage. The defensive line is new: UNLV loses its top three tackles – a major concern – and one of its top reserve ends, so we're looking at a work in progress. When it comes to February's recruiting class, two of UNLV's four JUCO transfers, Tuli Fakauho and Billy Tanuvasa, have the size to contribute inside, which would help. It's still slim pickings: Tanuvasa and Fakauho will play immediately, joining seniors Efrem Clark and Asten Koki, but the lack of depth is troubling. There are more experienced hands on the edges, but returnees Sonny Sanitoa (25 tackles), Jordan Sparkman (31 tackles), Jeremiah Valoaga and Siuea Vaesau are unproductive weapons in the pass rush.
At least UNLV's line includes players with adequate experience; the linebackers, on the other hand, are green. Tau Lotulelei (23 tackles, 4.0 for loss) must produce in an increased role, not only because of his promise – I think he could turn into a really solid starter – but because of his relative game-day experience in comparison to the rest of UNLV's options. While it's still a bit of a guessing game, I'd wager Lotulelei will be joined at linebacker by sophomores Iggy Porchia and Trent Langham. There's no way to know how this group will respond, but I'm cautious.
Special teams: The Rebels' saving grace is a return game headlined by Whitely and Sullivan. Given the program's long-standing struggles in coverage and the pessimism surrounding the kicking game, it's vital that this pair continues to flip field position. What are the odds? What would help matters is a stronger performance from kickoff specialist Nicolai Bornand, who put less than a third of his kicks for touchbacks in 2013.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: UNLV's single-season growth was mirrored by the leaps and bounds made by a single player, quarterback Caleb Herring, who went from backup to one of the Mountain West's most productive passers. In 2014, the Rebels' search for Herring's replacement could dip back into the past, with former starter Nick Sherry, or look toward a new face, JUCO transfer Blake Decker. Sherry's edge comes from experience: UNLV used the junior as the primary starter in 2012 to subpar results, but that time in the lineup is a clear advantage. But Decker has Hauck's seal of approval – as February's anointed quarterback recruit – and sterling JUCO production, two assets that cannot be ignored. For the Rebels, good news comes from depth: Sherry and Decker have two years to grow, and redshirt freshman Jared Lebowitz has time to develop in this system.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
San Jose State: There are no easy FBS wins through October: UNLV takes on Arizona, Northern Illinois, San Diego State, San Jose State, Fresno State and Utah State before the schedule eases in November. Of that opening sextet – with Northern Colorado thrown in for good measure – SJSU is the Rebels' best shot at a win, though the Spartans seem to have been a tad overlooked in the early MWC race.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Call this a gut pick, one not necessarily backed up by the Rebels' personnel. My feeling: UNLV has the weapons and confidence to notch another winning season. In general, the Rebels have the talent and experience to make this pick look silly: UNLV is solid in several spots and adequate at others, giving this team the right combination to charge back to a winning season. I'm simply hesitant to say a team not exactly accustomed to success – last year was a success, but it was just a start – can rediscover this stride when dealing with off-field distractions.
Let's think what the Rebels do well. The receiver corps is headlined by one of the top receivers on the non-major level. The offensive line is as experienced as it gets; when it comes to left tackle, the Rebels are as good as you'll see in the Mountain West. The backfield might be unsettled, but you have to admire Murray-Lawrence's production in a smaller sample size. And the secondary, with two veterans in the fold and a nice freshman in the mix, is an unquestioned strength. The issues? Quarterback, defensive line, linebacker, kicking game, coverage teams, pass rush and run defense. So it's not a perfect team by any stretch. The Rebels are simply good enough to win six games.
UNLV has the potential to blow past this projection – and I'd happily stand corrected. In terms of bodies, I have no leg to stand on: UNLV might be weak up front on defense and auditioning a new face under center, but this team has the talent to bypass any concerns and match last year's win total.
Dream season: Bowl ban or no, UNLV takes a step forward with an 8-4 regular season.
Nightmare season: The Rebels slide back to 2-10, casting doubts on the program's future.
Who's No. 110? This team's starting quarterback's high school is named after the school district's longtime superintendent.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014